Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
We speak to Conor Ashleigh, the documentary photographer behind the British Red Cross exhibition ‘Starting again – A new life in Scotland’. The families featured in the exhibition were forced to flee their homes in Syria, Iran and Sri Lanka. The exhibition explores separation and reunion – each of the families endured long periods of separation before being re-united in Scotland.
How did you become involved with the Red Cross project?
I recently moved to Scotland and was approached by the team at the British Red Cross to work on this collaborative project with them. They had seen my long term work in Australia and in other countries, documenting stories of individuals, families and communities displaced by conflict. While I have worked with the international Federation of Red Cross and other national societies including Australian, Myanmar and Timor-Leste Red Cross’ societies, this is my first time working with British Red Cross. It was a wonderful initiative and I can’t speak highly enough of the communication team Manger Alyson Thompson and officer Susan Calcutta, as well as Senior policy and public affairs officer Fiona MacLeod. As a documentary photographer I work for a range of media outlets, international NGOs and development agencies. For me true collaboration is when an organisation gives me a brief that has ample time to develop relationships with and produce quality photographs that represent the time spent. I am confident this work has done this.
Could you tell us about the families you spent time with – where were they from and why did they have to leave their home countries?
The four families are from Syrian, Iran and Sri Lanka. While the reasons why each family had to leave their home are varied, they’re united by the fact that it wasn’t their choice to leave. For understandable reasons some families have shared only certain information about their background and also context as to why they sought asylum. For many refugees, not just those I have met through this project, they still have their families and communities living in their country of origin.
The two families from Syria have shared their stories quite widely. The Al-Johmani’s and Nasrallah’s are both from Dara’a, Syria. Dara’a was where the first protests against Assad’s Government took place in March 2011. Since those initial peaceful demonstrations the conflict in Syria has lengthened into a deadly conflict that to date has killed more 250,000 Syrians and displaced another people.
Thamer Al-Johmani is a renowned human rights lawyer and writer suffered extensively when he was detained by the regime. Once finally released he decided to escape with his wife, French teacher Rashida, and their four children to Jordan.
Mohammad Nasrallah a successful businessman who had 15 staff working for him lost everything. Mohammad, his wife Kamar and their 7 children escaped after there house was attacked as they slept inside. Initially the family fled to Egypt, Mohammad then left to make the journey to the United Kingdom. Leaving behind his family was one of the hardest things for him to do, he had never spent a night away from his family in his life before.
Many of the photographs are taken at home and the families seem very comfortable and relaxed – how did you build such trusting relationships with the people you photographed?
I hope that my work offers a sense of intimacy for viewers, if it touches the audience that means I am doing my work properly. For me, photography is storytelling. Visual storytelling is a compelling way to personalise an issue, whether it be the plight of refugees or any other challenge facing humanity. The sense of intimacy the viewers experience is a result of a relationship between myself and the families.
My background in community development has been crucial to my work as a documentary photographer. What I see as normal rapport building with those I am photographing can be traced back to the valuable communication and active listening skills I honed when working with young refugees and homeless youth in Australia.
Recently, my five year-long project exploring young South Sudanese refugees growing up in Australia has been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian and Buzzfeed. While I haven’t had years to work with the families in this exhibition I did still have a lot of valuable time over the 6 weeks I was undertaking this project and I am glad the final exhibition shows this.
How did your experience of moving from Australia to Scotland compare to the migration experiences of the families you photographed?
My experience of migrating to Scotland from Australia has been a nice way to connect with the families regarding the experiences of settling in a new place. As I set out from the city centre I would regularly call the parents to check I was catching the correct bus to their house and ask for the local landmarks! While its been nice to be the student and have the families actually show me around Glasgow, the reality is I and my partner Maryam had the freedom to relocate to Scotland. We weren’t forced to start again against our will.
‘Starting again – A new life in Scotland’ is on at the Kibble Palace, Botanic Gardens until the 30th November. The Kibble Palace is open every day between 10-4.15 and entry is free.
This article is part of GRAMNet’s personal reflections blog series, where contributors offer short reflections on their personal, day-to-day interactions with migration issues. If you would like to contribute to this series, please get in touch using the contact form below. We welcome all contributions, whether sharing positive or negative experiences.